"You think this is the palace from our dream?" Samantha asked.
Gale nodded, then said, "What do you think happened to Ahmed and Mr. Bristle? You don't think they wound up like Motley and Mr. Fang do you?"
An image flashed through Samantha's mind at these words. It was the night after she and Gale had the same dream about a palace. That night the Colt brothers had gone missing, but they found their weapons. Like Mr. Murry, they simply vanished. A day later, Motley disappeared. There had been no blood, but they had found his antlers. Mr. Fang, who looked like a panda and had never said a word, swore and stopped chewing his bamboo shoots. He'd said it was so he'd make less noise and be able to tell if something was trying sneak up on him. When he disappeared, Samantha remembered the conversation that had taken place between Mr. Bristle, who was humanoid but looked like a hedgehog, and Ahmed, who towered over Mr. Bristle and looked like a rhino.
"What do you think?" Mr. Bristle said to Ahmed.
"I do not know," Ahmed said in his deep, sonorous voice. "I have never heard tell of such a thing, but I know we have lost five very skilled hunters. That does not just happen. I fear we are doomed."
Mr. Bristle's quills stood on end, and he raised himself to his full height, which was just over four feet tall. "Well, we need a plan. We can't let those girls face the Ogin on their own."
"That is true, but no matter how much I like them or hope that they're able to return home, I have no wish to die for children either," Ahmed said, as the light from the sun glinted off the javelin head that he had embedded in his horn.
"So what should we do?" Mr. Bristle said.
"I do not know. The Ogin strikes at will, so I do not think we would make it off this mountain if he did not want us to leave. But to go forward seems to be madness."
The diminutive hedgehog nodded. "I agree, but we are in no shape to make a good decision while we are scared. Do you know if there is a cave or some kind of shelter that we can get to so that there is only one way to reach us?"
The great rhino nodded. "There is one place. But I do not know if we can make it before the sun goes down."
"Then we had better get moving," Mr. Bristle said curtly, and with the girls helping, he and Ahmed tied as much of the supplies as they could carry on their back, and then loaded as much onto the mount (which looked like a cross between a yak and a camel) the girls had been riding as they thought it could carry while still transporting Gale and Samantha.
All that day they had fought the mountain. The passes all were filled with deep drifts, and a wind that sliced through even the best made clothing would blast down from the peaks, freezing the very air in the girls' nostrils. Additionally, the air was becoming thinner and thinner, which made everyone lightheaded and prone to seeing things that were not there. Still they pressed onwards, and just an hour before sundown they had found the cave that Ahmed said would be there.
The girls got off of their mount, which Gale had taken to calling Shaggy, and shuffled blearily into the cave. Once inside, they found the cave was little more than a grotto that had been carved out by shifting ice. Both Ahmed and Mr. Bristle seemed pleased with it, excepting when they were variously bit and kicked by Shaggy, as they maneuvered the beast into the small, dark cave.
That night they decided not to light a fire, and the both Gale and Samantha were forced to eat jerky of some sort. The dried meat was so cold that they were forced to hold it in their mouths for a good half a minute before being able to gnaw through it. Eventually, tired, half-frozen, but hopeful for a restful night sleep, they went to bed.
They did not wake up in the cave.
Samantha's stomach rumbled like a freight train, and Gale's stomach soon joined in, but she had to focus on the question at hand. Where were Ahmed and Mr. Bristle?
Both the girls were unshackled, which was unheard of in that dungeon. It did make it easy though for Samantha to make sure that her little sister was fine. Gale's blond hair was now frizzy and brittle from the cold, but the green eyes were blazing with indignation, and as soon as Samantha finished her inspection, Gale began bouncing around the room: a sure sign that she was not hurt.
The first place Gale explored was the door. She hit it with her fist, but instead of a hollow ring, there was only a dull thump. "I think we could pound on that till we died and nobody would hear us," Gale said, more annoyed than frightened by this fact. But this was swiftly followed by a small gasp and Gale shouting, "Look at this! Look at how big it is!"
"What?" Samantha said, hurrying over to the door, where she only too clearly glimpsed what made Gale so excited. The younger girl's face was pressed against an old keyhole, but unlike the ones that Samantha had seen in cartoons or old movies, this lock was gargantuan. It looked to be a least as tall as her torso, and as wide as her arm. "If that's the keyhole, then how do you think we are going to do anything against whatever holds the key?" Samantha said glumly.
"Oh don't start whining again," Gale said.
"What do you mean whine?" Samantha shot back hotly.
"I mean every time something doesn't go the way you want, you mope and stomp about like a bayyyybeee," Gale said. "Just hope that we get out and that Ahmed and Mr. Bristle are here and can help us."
"But what if they aren't," Samantha said. "None of the other guards were left alive."
"You don't know that," Gale said. "They disappeared. Who knows what happened to them."
Samantha was going to argue, but then thought better of it. Gale always seemed to be happy and sunny, and it made Samantha want to beat some sense into her and get her to understand things did not always work out. She flexed her hands into fists and let them go again, and repeated this, trying to remain calm. Fortunately this was made easy by the fact that nothing happened for a long time. Meanwhile, Gale explored the whole room, which was barren except for a chamberpot. Still nothing happened.
After a while the girls' guts rumbled again, but it was still three hours more before a door that Gale had not noticed at the bottom of the main door slid back, and two plates were pushed through. The plates were piled high with sweet smelling breads, cheese, meat that looked purplish but which tasted like fried chicken, and oddly for there were also real peaches and grapes. Two large glasses of water accompanied the plates, and it was these that the girls attacked with ravenous delight.
Not long after the last morsel was eaten, the door opened, and both Gale and Samantha wished they had not gorged themselves quite as much, as what was standing in the door made them both nearly vomit in terror on the spot.
It was a lion, but not like any lion they had ever seen or heard about. To start the fur was more wolf than cat; the eyes burned with the same blue flames as on a blow torch. The massive cat's body was as long as a bus, and just as tall. Knotted muscles bulged under the skin, and in some places they were so large the skin split, and more blue fire danced out of the cracks, burning away the fur around it, creating strange markings. Each tooth in it's massive head was as sharp as a saber, and its claws clicked off the flagstone, creating little sparks as it walked. Additionally, it wore black plate armor embossed with strange glyphs, which at this distance the girls could see looked to match some of the places on his skin where the fire was coming through. "Come," it said in a voice that was as soft as a feather, but nevertheless rumbled through them like a blitzing tank corps.
The massive cat turned, and as it did, more sparks shot off the floor. The girls stared, mouths agape, but then they both hurried after the massive cat. Up multiple circular stairways, and past rooms crammed with gold, jewels, and fine furs and silks they walked, and the whole time the huge cat said nothing. Then, suddenly, Gale burst out, "What's your name?"
The cat stopped walking and turned its head so that it was looking at the girls. Then, slowly, it pulled its lip back over his teeth, revealing row after row of razor sharp teeth. As the girls stared, transfixed by the gleaming teeth, the cat said in that same soft, dangerous voice, "you do not ask questions little one. You will answer them." Then with a casual flick of its massive head, it sent colossal blue sparks flying off its mane like angry hornets and resumed walking.
The girls dodged the fiery motes, their dread mounting with every step. Up, and up, and still further up they climbed, and the higher they got the more magnificent and gilded the rooms became. Eventually they reached the doorway to the topmost room in the tallest of the towers, where the found a set of double doors made out of polished Ironwood the color of tar. Into this was inlaid more of the glyphs in platinum, except where there were accents on the characters, which were embellished with flawless diamonds. Each of the doors rose at least 200 feet in the air, and they looked like they would take a cadre of men to move, but the great cat simply puffed air out of his nose, and they silently swung inward on hidden, perfectly oiled hinges.
The room that Samantha and Gale entered made them both inhale with shock. The dome rose over 500 feet into the air and it was covered by huge mirrors that reflected the floor below. Fifty feet above the girls' heads, just before the mirror started, the walls changed to blue and white tile that formed a massive mural that ran the circumference off the room and all the way down to the floor. It had scenes of pain, love, loss, and triumph, and they all seemed to flow uninterrupted from one to the next. Between the tile and the mirror and also going around the whole room were lamps, but not the kind the girls were used to seeing. They each stood 10 feet tall, and no two were alike. They all depicted an animal of some kind: here a dragon, there a wolf, here a vole, there a frog, and to the left a crane, and to the right a hawk. Each animal was spewing fire from its mouth. Finally there was the floor. It was the only one like it in the palace, and unlike all the wooden ones they had passed, this one was made of a deep purple marble, except for the very center of the room, which gleamed with a massive starburst made out of pure white marble. Upon that white marble, there stood the only bit of furniture in the room--a throne that rose up seamlessly out of the starburst below, and in that throne was the Ogin.
The massive club the two girls had seen in their dreams leaned against the throne. The banner that decorated it when they last saw it was not to be seen, but the rider that had been astride the huge lion was there. Just as the girls took in their breath at the sight of the room, he spoke, “So you two have been sent here to destroy me? Well then come. Come and use all of your might. Come and rage and flail against me. But it will do you no good. None who have opposed me have survived. I am the end for all who cross my path.”
The voice that said this in a voice similar to the huge cat’s almost-whisper: it was soft, gentle, and bespoke untold power. In fact, it almost sounded the way Gale remembered her father sounding when he was singing a lullaby, only twisted in some horrible way she could not place. Terrified but not knowing what to do, the girls stepped into the room, and then of their own accord, the doors slammed behind them. Both the girls jumped and spun around, which only elicited a chuckle from the man lazing on the throne.
“I must say, I thought that one day Scheherazade would send someone against me, and when I head that day had come, well, you can’t possibly know how excited I was. At last a chance to test my mettle. To measure myself against an equal. It seems that I shall be disappointed.” The flames that were dancing on the end of the man’s fingers dimmed considerably as he spoke. “How very rude of the two of you.”
“All men are created equal,” Gale said and she stepped forward. “They taught us that in school.”
“Really?" The man said, as the flames on his finger perked up a smidgin. And tell me, how do they get away with filling a child’s head with such lies? Some men are cunning. Others are strong. Some are born halfwits and others still as nitwits. How then are all men equal?”
Gale, who did not follow this exactly, simply said, “Because they are, and that means we are your equal.”
Suddenly the man on the chair vanished into a puff of smoke, reappeared instantly behind Samantha and Gale, and shoved them both in their back so they fell flat on their faces. “Is that a fact? Then why, dear girl, would I push my equal down?”
Samantha, who was so scared that she felt she was on the verge of losing control of her bladder tried to think of what to do, but nothing in school or life had prepared her for this. Just as that thought galloped through her brain, she saw Gale. Her lip was cracked and bleeding from where she had hit the floor, and that it was finally did it. Something primal awoke in Samantha. Something that, until that very moment, she did not know she had, and it lashed out at the idea of being made fun of by this threatening man and then eaten by his lion.
“We may not be as strong as you, but at least we don’t hurt people for fun,” Samantha said as she rolled over to look at the thing that had pushed her. “That makes us better than you in at least one way.”
“Being weak is no virtue. It is a fault. And besides—” suddenly the club was in the man’s hand and it descended through the air like a diving peregrine and slammed into the floor just between the two girls' heads—“is it not nobel to have the power to destroy someone and to hold back?”
Both the girls flinched as the club impacted and they sprang up in an attempt to defend themselves, but the Ogin had already vanished and was settled back on his throne. From there he said, “Enough of this. You have no ability and no hope of beating me, and the both of you speak nothing but nonsense. I think it time I fed you to Ts’ui and be done with it. What do you say, Ts’ui, are you ready for your meal?”
The great cat looked at the thing sitting on the throne, and for the first time Samantha saw something that resembled loathing on the cat’s face. It was subtle, just a slight droop of the whiskers and a slight backward tilt of the ears, but the cat seemed to Samantha to loathe the Ogin.
“Ts’ui. That’s a pretty name,” Gale said, in spite of the fact that the cat was now supposed to eat her.
The cat’s tail drooped just a little bit more, and as it did, Samantha saw the flames on the Ogin’s fingers burn just a fraction brighter; in that second understanding flooded into her and she laughed.
Gale turned to look at her sister; she may have asked Ts'ui a polite question, but that was only because she was sure that she was going to be eaten, and she didn’t wan’t to be thought of as a child. But now, she was sure her sister had lost it. “What are you doing?” Gale hissed at her sister, trying to put on a brave face.
“Don’t you get it?” Samantha said. “He has no power. He isn't strong. He’s a leach. Ts’ui is the strong one, and I bet without him, you,” and she turned to face the Ogin,” couldn’t take either my sister or me.” With those words a dam burst and other words flooded into her memory. Words spoken by the Fortune Stone that Scheherazade had given them to trade: That which burns the brightest, burns the fastest, and vanity is the most combustible fuel of all.
The flames on the Ogin’s fingers suddenly burst to life, flooding Samantha’s brain with an idea.
“Well,” the Ogin said not bothering to hide the irritation in his voice, “It seems I have to at least take back the part I said about you not being clever. Not that it will do you any good,” and he vanished again. Samantha didn’t wait and jumped forward and rolled just in time. The club crashed into the floor right where she had been standing. But even as she moved she started jeering the black-clad figure.
“What’s the matter? Can’t beat up on two little girls without the help of a big, scary cat? I bet it’s because you are a coward.”
Gale, unsure of what to do, backed away from her sister, so that the Ogin could not get both of them at the same time. Then she said, “I knew I was better then you. You hurt Ts'ui to get strong.”
Flames started creeping out from under the edges of the Ogin’s armor and a light began to shine from behind his helmet and he stepped forward to swing at Gale, but she scampered away. Frustrated, the Ogin disappeared again and when he reappeared he had Gale. “Miserable whelps. Now you die,” he said, as the flames from his hands started singeing Gale’s clothing. He raised his club, and just as he was about to drop it Samantha intervened.
“Wait. You want to beat us. Prove you can without just killing us. Or are you too afraid to lose to kids?”
The club wavered in the air, and Samantha could see the two sides of the creature's brain at war with one another. Powerless to stop the Ogin if it decided to kill her sister, she held her breath and waited. Then it said, “Speak, and be quick about it.”
“Fine. A simple contest. How many rooms are in the palace?”
“Over a thousand, and nobody has ever been able to find their way through them and escape.”
“Perfect.” Samantha said. “Then this will be simple. Ts’ui will take Gale and put her in one of the rooms. When he comes back, we will both go looking for her. If you find her before I do, then I guess nobody will know what happened to us.”
“And if you find her first?” the Ogin asked, his flaming eyes boaring into Samantha suspiciously.
“Then not only do we get to leave, but you have to let Ts’ui be free,” Samantha said.
The Ogin stared at Samantha for a long time, and she was sure he was trying to figure out how she expected to win the bet. She only hoped he was too angry to think to have them take off their jewelry before the contest started. Just when she thought he was not going to agree, the Ogin said, “I will accept on the condition that I may move about as I wish, and you must only use your feet.”
Samantha thought of his teleporting abilities and vaguely wondered how long it would take him to teleport to all of the thousand rooms, but given that she had no choice she said, “Fine.”
The Ogin nodded, and then threw Gale across the room at Ts’ui. She slammed into the armor on the side of the big cat. Samantha heard something break. Gale screamed and started crying.
Samantha started running towards her sister, but the Ogin appeared between them and yelled, “Ts’ui. Go! Hide the whelp, and be thorough about it. I want to savor this victory.”
The huge cat shot a look of loathing at the Ogin, and then took its tale and wrapped it around Gale’s body and picked her up. “Hold on,” it said, and then pausing only to open the huge doors it sprinted into the bowls of the palace.
As soon as Ts’ui was gone the Ogin teleported himself back onto the throne to wait. Samantha sat down with her back to the thing and watched the door, waiting for the huge cat. As she waited she said, “What happened to Mr. Bristle and Ahmed?”
The Ogin only laughed and said, “The only way you will discover that is to beat me.” Rather than argue the point, Samantha began to concentrate on the itch in the back of her mind that was growing as Gale was carried farther and farther from her. How long she was there alone with the thing, she could not say, but if felt like an eternity, and the whole time she felt as if she would be burned alive if she did anything other than sit. Then, suddenly the thing was there, just over her shoulder. “I know you have some kind of trick. I don’t know what it is, but even if you do beat me, you will never forget me,” and suddenly the Ogin had its flaming fingers wrapped around Samantha's arm. The fire in his hand flared up, burning though the clothing until hit reached Samantha’s skin.
She screamed and struggled to get away, but Ogin held fast an only let up on the pressure when the door burst open and Ts’ui burst in. The huge cat growled deep in its chest, but the Ogin ignored it. Roaring, Ts’ui sprang at the Ogin with the force of a bomb going off, claws as long as sabers popped out of his paws and his jaw opened so far that Samantha could see down his throat. Samantha blinked her eyes in terror and pain. The sound of claws tearing into the Ogin did not come. Ts’ui stopped. Stopped and just hung in the air as if he’d run face first into a wall. Still, it must have cost the Ogin something, because he let go of Samantha and staggered backwards.
“You will regret that,” the Ogin said to Ts’ui and then vanished.
As soon as the thing was gone, Ts’ui dropped to the ground. He gave a soft hiss and then trotted over to Samantha, who flinched again. Ts’ui ignored this and peered closely at the burned arm. “Beat him,” the huge cat rumbled, and then licked her arm with a very hairy tongue. To Samantha it was like being licked by sandpaper, but the pain in her arm subsided. Looking down, she saw a nasty scar, but the burn and blister that had just been there were gone.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Do not thank me,” Ts’ui rumbled. “I am the reason you are here, and I may be forced to eat you. Now hurry and find your sister, but be careful. There is more than just old treasure in this palace.”
“What does that mean?” Samantha asked, worried by what else she would run into in this horrid place.
“I cannot say,” the huge cat said, “Now hurry, your sister needs you, and remember, water is not the only that can be refreshing.”
“What?” Samantha said.
“I can say no more. Now go,” the huge cat said pushing Samantha with his massive head, and as he did, the bell around his neck bumped Samantha. She wanted more information, but unbidden her eyes fell on the white throne and a vision of a disappearing and reappearing Ogin invaded her bring so she argued no more. Focusing on the itch in the back of her mind that would show her the way, Samantha concentrated on Gale and started running.